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How bear expert Lynn Rogers went from scientific pioneer to pariah

How bear expert Lynn Rogers went from scientific pioneer to pariah

UPDATE: Lynn Rogers lost his battle with the DNR in September 2014 when they declined to renew his permits to put cameras in bear dens and radio collars on the animals.

The Northwoods Research Center sits at the end of a long, gravel path, lined by a backdrop of white pine ascending to the sky.

Tall grass climbs the vinyl siding of the three-story building, which is covered in spider webs and mosquitoes. At the center of it all is a 400-pound black bear, licking its chops and waiting patiently on the front porch like an overgrown dog.

Biologist Lynn Rogers bursts through the front door, smile on his face and bag of hazelnuts in hand, ready to satiate the massive animal. Soon, more bears arrive. But Rogers has his eyes set on one: the giant known as Big Harry.

Rogers and Harry engage in a kind of dance. He lures it in with a few hazelnuts. The creature is reticent at first. But when it realizes its reward, it walks gently toward Rogers, focused, never looking at the man's leathery face.

"Come on, bear," he calls out in a rough growl. "Stand up. All the way, bear."

Harry raises his paws and stands on his hind legs. It's only like this, seeing him tower over the humans around him, that one can truly appreciate the size and power of the beast. The bear grabs the nuts from Rogers's hand, scooping them tenderly with its tongue. Rogers plucks a comb from his pocket, strokes the bear's back, and laughs.

His command of the giant is impressive. You'd swear he could tell it to sit or stay and it would obey. There's an animal instinct at play here, a pure empathy.

"I think [Rogers] probably has a better gut understanding of black bear behavior — of how they communicate — in ways that other people just can't," says Roger Powell, a bear biologist at North Carolina State. "Man, I wish I could understand bears the way he does."

Yet this isn't some sideshow act. It's Rogers's way of showing people that these animals aren't to be feared. His methods are certainly unusual, but so is Rogers.

No biology textbook will tell you to feed a bear by hand or follow it through the woods for up to 24 hours a day. These are techniques years in development, built by going against what the world told him and sticking with his gut.

It's this very stubbornness and desire to part ways with status-quo science that's turned Rogers into a tainted figure, transforming him from one of the most influential bear biologists in history to a pariah of the state.

EVEN WHEN ROGERS IS AWAY FROM bears, his mind never strays too far. His speech is littered with anecdotes about the one he saved, the one hit by a car, the one that recently gave birth. His stories begin in one place and then careen elsewhere. There's just so much to say and only so much time.

But when the subject turns to his fight with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Rogers's eyes narrow. His voice, normally a low growl, sharpens with anger.

"They just want to get rid of you," he says. "And they'll build a case — any case — to do that."

Before the controversy, before the hand feeding, the radical techniques, and the residents of Eagles Nest, Minnesota, turning against him, Rogers was just a student. He spent the summer of 1968 moving nuisance bears from one place to the next in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The job was monotonous. Get a call. Drive. Tranquilize. Move bear. Repeat.

Then he met Albert Erickson, a University of Minnesota professor and early bear expert. Rogers never left his side, pestering Erickson with question after question. What do bears do when they're not causing a nuisance? Where do they live? How do they move?

"And he said, 'Nobody knows the answers to those questions. Nobody's studied those,'" Rogers says. "'But you can help me answer them.' And he invited me to be his graduate student."

Erickson was one of the first biologists to capture bears and tag them. Through him, Rogers was able to use radio telemetry, a new technique employing GPS collars to track a bear's movement. Rogers used these techniques to follow them from birth through death, studying where they went for food, how they hibernated and reproduced. By the time he published his graduate thesis in 1978, Rogers was beginning to answer those questions. At the time, bears were mostly studied when caught, not in the wild. He was beginning to show the world their never-before-seen life.

"What that research does, and what my research did and what his did, is generate more questions than answers," says John Beecham, a retired bear biologist from Idaho. "All of these studies from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s are just built on that early work."

 

Back then, the public approach to bears, likely initiated by a bureaucrat somewhere, wasn't really working. Wildlife officials would tag them and remove them from campgrounds and neighborhoods, only to see them return.

To this day, the majority of bear scientists still agree with these approaches. They say bears may not be out to kill you, but they're unpredictable.

"Bears are not necessarily dangerous, in terms of deaths and injuries they cause compared to automobiles, rattlesnakes, bee stings," Beecham says. "It is relative. But there is a danger factor that you have to be aware of."

But Rogers wanted to think outside of the box. "It's someone at a desk, just seeing the surface and looking at old misconceptions," Rogers says of the practice.

Rogers was out in the field; he knew the bears weren't interested in attacking people. They just wanted food.

That gave him an idea: What if he set out food in another place, luring them away from people?

He wouldn't try it until 1984 at Kawishiwi Campground in the Superior National Forest. Bears were flooding the campground and clawing at trash cans. So Rogers placed a large box a half-mile away, close to a Forest Service field lab. He filled it with pound upon pound of beef fat, never letting it run low. The bears ate as much as they wanted and moved on.

Then Rogers decided to hand the bears food to see what would happen. He'd been close to bears before, but this was different. These bears would be touching human flesh.

"I would throw food 30 feet away from me," he says. "And then gradually throw it closer and closer until with a few of the bears, they would eventually even take food from my hand! It was easy. No problems."

He realized they would trust him and eventually ignore him. So he began to follow them at night.

"We wandered off into the woods together. I could hear them breathing. I could hear their movements, but I couldn't see them. They were like shadows."

He would follow a single bear for up to a day at a time, monitoring every movement, every gesture. There was the occasional nip or swipe, but it was worth it. Rogers had created a technique no scientist had used before, and he was illuminating a whole new world of bear behavior.

When he wrapped up the study in 1991, the results startled him. In the six years he used diversionary feeding at Kawishiwi, nuisance complaints fell 88 percent. Instead of digging in garbage cans, the bears were ignoring them completely.

It was just one study at one campground in one state. But the implications were huge, suggesting that the government approach to bears had been wrong all along.

At the time, no one was talking about hand feeding or the other ideas that would eventually land Rogers in trouble with the state. Instead, they saw a man who could follow a black bear, hold its cub, and look into its den, making observations scientists had never made before. The story told itself.

"I've never run into a study that is so pertinent to the questions that are not really understood," says Charlie Russell, a Canadian naturalist who studies grizzly bears. "And here's a person who is trying to demonstrate to people that this is how the bear really is."

The Man Who Walks With Bears, they called him. Rogers's name began to fall in the same sentences as that of Jane Goodall, the revolutionary chimpanzee researcher, and Brian Bertram, who ventured into the Serengeti to study lions. He was no longer a lone biologist in Minnesota. He was a bona-fide scientific celebrity.

Documentary crews showed up in Ely. First came PBS, then CBS, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet. From the late 1980s to early '90s, the cameras never stopped rolling.

Rogers didn't necessarily need the attention, but TV provided him a valuable trumpet. Bears had long been painted as blood-hungry beasts intent on attacking any human in sight. He could finally shout his truths to the contrary.

The scientific community was less enamored. While colleagues presented papers born from hard science and data, Rogers presented new techniques he used to walk with bears. It was science, yes, but observational, not of the cold, hard statistical variety. And the documentaries were viewed as inflating an ego that was just a tad too big, smearing the line between scientist and celebrity.

"People began to get the impression that it was kind of a show thing more than a research project," says one retired biologist, who didn't want his name used to avoid being embroiled in Rogers's case. "It seemed like his only reason for doing that was just to take people out [on tours], not research."

 

The other problem came from the data Rogers did collect. Biology was moving away from the work of naturalists, those like Goodall who spent their time observing, not compiling stats. Tools like linear regression and factor analysis had become the rage. Observing bears in a Minnesota forest didn't quite fit.

"Lynn tends to collect data because he's figured out a tool," says Powell. "And then try to figure out what to do with the data later. So that's kind of backwards... but he has collected some stupendous data."

Yet his methods were clearly falling from favor. "Statistical approaches we used in the 1980s can't be used anymore," says one prominent bear biologist. "They can't get published."

Call it stubbornness or arrogance, but Rogers would ignore the clamor. Instead, he would embark on his most revolutionary study yet.

THAT EXPERIMENT NOW LIES ON land about 10 miles south of Ely, at the end of a dirt road in the small township of Eagles Nest.

Two wooden feeding stations sit next to a porch. Another three rest 20 feet away. They overflow with hazelnuts, pecans, and meat. At dusk and dawn, black bears slink their way from the forest. By the end of the twice-daily exercise, the feeders are nearly empty.

This is the Northwoods Research Center. It's where Rogers and his small team of volunteers have fed bears for nearly two decades.

Only about 250 people live in Eagles Nest. Most are retired, and many just want to be left alone. Homes can sit miles apart, often with chained gates and "No Trespassing" signs.

Rogers first heard about this place nearly 30 years ago. He was flipping through the pages of the Ely Echo when he saw the headline: "Ed Orazem: The man that feeds the bears."

Rogers stopped, stunned. "The only thing I had ever heard before was that we were the only ones feeding bears," he says. "And here was this community, right next door!"

He kept reading.

"There have been a lot of problems with bears in and around Ely this year, tipping over garbage cans and getting into gardens, but south of town, on Armstrong Lake, the bears just aren't interested in causing problems," the article begins. "The main reason is that the bears are being served at an outdoor restaurant, owned and operated by Ed Orazem."

The article only mentioned Orazem, but Rogers made some calls. Others were feeding bears in Eagles Nest too. No one was doing it quite like Orazem, who was feeding by hand. But it was common for residents to open a dumpster or throw a few scraps here and there.

This was it, Rogers thought. Eagles Nest was the kind of community that had figured out how to deal with bears without resorting to shooting them. This was a town that wasn't afraid.

It took until 1993, but Rogers finally bought the three-story building that would become the Northwoods Research Center. He launched his study in 1996. Eagles Nest would be a grand experiment in human-bear relations, the opportunity to study, once and for all, whether the species could peacefully coexist.

"It was something that they'd been doing for 50 years!" Rogers says. "What I was seeing was that about a dozen households were feeding. I thought this could be interesting. And great."

This was Rogers's paradise. He could feed bears, weigh them, walk with them, watch them give birth and die. By staying in one spot, Rogers was able to track an entire clan, building a family tree. It was the type of genealogy few had ever seen.

In 2005, Rogers added education to his agenda, breaking ground on the North American Bear Center. It houses exhibits, a theater, and a three-acre area where the public can watch bears for themselves. It gave Rogers a platform to tell the world we could trust bears, that we didn't have to be afraid anymore.

It was a scientist's dream.

But one thing kept tainting that dream: the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It's a villain Rogers seems to mention every 20 minutes.

His troubles began in 2003, he says, when the DNR appointed Tom Rusch as the new wildlife manager for the area. Rogers's relationship with the DNR wasn't great before that, but he had some supporters, including former area wildlife manager Fred Thunhorst.

"Tom Rusch comes in, and he starts telling people how dangerous bears are," Rogers says. "He came in, right away, his first words to me were, 'How long are you guys gonna be continuing this study? Cause I don't like feeding in my area.'"

Rogers claims the DNR started blaming him for every bear incident, sparking fear in Eagles Nest. The DNR wouldn't allow Rusch to be interviewed, but spokesman Chris Niskanen says this wasn't the case.

 

"Tom Rusch is a well-respected, veteran wildlife manager," says Niskanen. "If he was concerned about people's safety, he was probably doing his job. That DNR employees would be concerned about public safety and collecting complaints in a situation where residents are concerned about their children, I think that it's an agency's responsibility to protect public safety before there's an accident, not after an accident. That seems perfectly reasonable."

Soon, complaints rose of bears damaging property. Meetings were held. Petitions filed. The DNR restricted Rogers's research permits to 15 radio collars. He could only visit dens once per week. But none of it calmed the dispute.

It reached a breaking point last year, when the DNR chose not to renew Rogers's research permits, meaning he could no longer fit bears with radio collars, follow them, or place cameras in their dens. The area was simply getting too dangerous, the agency said. Worse, Rogers wasn't producing the kind of peer-reviewed papers expected of modern science. The DNR couldn't justify the permits any more.

Rogers sued. During two weeks of hearings beginning last February, accusations bounced back and forth. A judge ultimately sided with the DNR.

Rogers insists the agency lied. He points to bear complaints filed near Eagles Nest since 2005. The DNR filed some without permission from residents, trial testimony revealed. There were "lies and misrepresentations," he says, made "to discredit us and win the hearing by any means possible."

The agency's decision is not yet final, but whatever happens, DNR spokesman Niskanen insists this isn't personal. Agency commissioner Tom Landwehr and Gov. Mark Dayton have both met with with Rogers. But the problems with science and safety have proven insurmountable.

"The record shows that the issue here has always been public safety, and our desire for him to share his research with the rest of the world through peer-reviewed publications," says Niskanen. "So while Dr. Rogers may want to make this a personal issue, the judge's recommendation clearly points to this as a public safety issue, which has been our concern all along."

CHARLIE MEYER STEPS out the back door of his small house on the shore of Lake Number One in Eagles Nest and points to two wooden structures about five feet high. They resemble covered buffet tables, topped by slabs of wood layered with peanuts. These are his bear feeders.

"It's nearly every morning," he says. "One or two will come out. It was only yesterday that Kayla here gave one some food by hand. Didn't you?" His teenaged granddaughter nods.

The problems are basically nonexistent, Meyer says. Yes, bears can get a little greedy. He points to a bird feeder, which is wrapped in a blanket of electric fence. Bears used to claim the feeder as their own, fumbling their way into snoutfuls of bird seed. But since he installed the fence, the problem disappeared.

You have to know what you're getting into when you move to Eagles Nest, he says. The deer, the bears, they're all part of the package. To get upset about a bear that just wants to eat doesn't make sense.

At least a half-dozen other houses in Eagles Nest have similar feeders. They're home to the descendants of Ed Orazem. This is the Eagles Nest that Rogers dreamed of, a place where bears don't have to worry about running out of food. He points to stats: From 2000 to 2006, there were only three nuisance bear complaints in Eagles Nest, compared with thousands across the state.

But Percy White sees another Eagles Nest. She grew up here, spending summers at her grandparents' cottage a half-century ago, jumping off docks at the town's three lakes into dark blue water. When she saw bears then, it was an event. Her grandfather would spot one grazing near the backyard. She and her siblings would rush to look, eyes nearly bugging from their heads.

But as quickly as the bear arrived, it would disappear, scared off by the sounds of a clanging door or a child's yips of excitement.

"It's nothing like that now," she says. Fifty years ago, you could bang a pan or yell and the bears would leave. These days, some don't even notice the sounds anymore. They'll waddle around the docks or nudge your shoulder looking for food. And they'll keep at it, even with a yell or scream.

"We really feel like we're being held captive," she says.

White's not alone. In 2007, 28 residents of Eagles Nest signed a petition directed to the town supervisor, asking to bring the bears under control.

Andy Urban's home is in prime bear country, along a channel the animals travel to reach Rogers's feeding stations. They'll often stop by his deck, looking for food. But banging, yelling, and pepper spray won't drive them away.

 

"I even rang this big school bell we have, but it didn't faze them," Urban says. "They came right up and got on the deck."

These days, some worry about letting their grandchildren outside. They can't walk along the town's dirt roads without fear that a bear might follow.

"He likes to think that this is just a bear's natural way," Urban says of Rogers. "And what he is doing is habituating bears so they see people as a source of food. And some people are comfortable with that, but other people are worried."

Rogers hears the complaints. Yet Eagles Nest has always fed these bears, he says. Those with grievances just haven't gotten with the program. If people could simply learn to live with bears and understand they're not dangerous, the problems would disappear.

"If they were open-minded, they could learn! It's something I've offered, for them to meet the bear."

Just think of all the good he's done, Rogers insists. His North American Bear Center brings loads of tourists to Ely each year. His den cams broadcast around the globe via internet, giving viewers insight into a never-before-seen world.

So Rogers won't be giving up the fight. If the DNR decides to kill his research permits, he'll appeal.

SPENDING A FEW DAYS with Rogers helps you feel a little safer around bears, but only up to a point. Extending a few nuts in your hand to one of them, allowing its coarse tongue to lap them up — with no desire for the human flesh underneath — lets you understand what biologists have been saying for years: While these creatures are unpredictable, they're not out to eat you.

But no amount of reason can stop the fear that overtakes you when you walk from the Northwoods Research Center at sunset and head down a small dirt path toward downtown. Three, four, five black bears pop their heads out from the trees, looking like giant silhouettes among the branches. No matter how many times you mutter "bears won't hurt me," your heart can't help but make your pace a little bit faster.

If the DNR decides to kill Rogers's experiment, will anyone be radical enough to try his techniques in another town? Or will Eagles Nest be a blip in history?

As of now, Eagles Nest appears to be the exception. Despite similar techniques attempted in other states, Rogers's hand-feeding experiment has never been replicated. With its controversial history, it's tough to imagine another state agency approving a similar plan.

"More than likely, it's not cost-effective," says Ben Kilham, a bear biologist in New Hampshire. "And the methods that have been tried haven't always worked."

There's no question Rogers has unveiled unprecedented truths about black bears. His GPS tracking coordinates, a nearly full family tree, and thousands upon thousands of hours of den cam footage have the potential to answer huge biological questions. But only after all these years has Rogers begun to sort through his discoveries to produce something in conventional scientific form.

It may be too late.

"I think that if Lynn had designed research better and had published more peer-reviewed papers, he probably wouldn't have run into all the problems he has with the DNR," says Ainslie Willock, president of the Get Bear Smart Society, which works to limit conflicts between bears and humans. "Lynn has a tendency to assert that what he understands about bears is true, without providing evidence for other people to evaluate it and see whether it is or not."

"It's a matter of taking a neutral position, gathering a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis," says Beecham, the retired biologist. "And some of his methods are really questionable. But science is built on that. If you're not credible there, you're not going to be effective."

Rogers has heard the criticism. He heard it when he started walking with bears, heard it when he started telling people that bears weren't as dangerous as we thought. It's just something a scientific pioneer must put up with.

"Throughout my career, no matter what the risk, I have just gone with the data and stood up for what is right," Rogers says. "And I can see why most people would not buck the usual policies, because they're thinking about their mortgage or college money for their kids. Whenever somebody tries something really new or challenges a widely held belief in history, just about anybody who's done something like that hasn't been respected in their lifetime. But if you're right, as time goes on, they say, 'Hey! He's right! He's right!'"

Even if Rogers loses his permits, there's no plan to close the research center or halt his studies. Hand-feeding bears is still legal in Minnesota. He's a scientist forever, and his lab is still right here in Eagles Nest.

 

For good or bad, Rogers's grand experiment isn't about to end.

Naomi Lees-Maiberg

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